LGBTQ-athletes find acceptance in Kent State’s “You Can Play” video.

Words by Richard Mulhall

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(Left to Right) Athletic Director Joel Nielsen, President Beverly Warren and
LGBTQ Center Director Ken Ditlevson are key players in the “You Can Play” initiative. Photo by Erin McLaughlin.

Rebecca Windover, a former Alfred University soccer player and recent Kent State graduate, didn’t fear as much as other athletes. The big games never worried her. Tough opponents never intimidated her. The threat of injury never scared her.

In spite of all this, Windover spent much of her life living in fear. Fear of being herself. Fear of being a lesbian.

“For me, it was very confusing, very isolating,” Windover says. “It’s your college years, and it’s supposed to be the best time in your life. You get to college, and you’re miserable. Depression, suicide ideation—all those things are real-life frustrations that occur for people who are closeted or people who don’t feel accepted for being who they are.”

In order to appease her community and keep her identity a secret from family, friends and teammates, Windover negated the true nature of her identity and chose to live her life as a heterosexual.

Rebecca’s story

Windover grew up in the small, rural town of Lowville, New York, which was as religious and conservative as many could expect a small-town dynamic to be.

It was the kind of town where children were expected to follow traditions laid out by parents and grandparents, which meant following what people deemed the conventional norms of society. Windover went to high school at Lowville Academy and Central School, where diversity was far outside the realm of ubiquity.

“The amount of minority students, I can count on one hand,” Windover says.

Photo submitted by Rebecca Windover. | Rebecca Windover tried to fit into a heteronormative world while she played soccer as an undergrad.

After high school, Windover attended Alfred University, also located in a small, New York town. Alfred was a pleasant change from Lowville. Unlike high school, Alfred University as a whole was liberal and inclusive. Its athletic program, though, was a different story.

While studying and playing soccer at Alfred, Windover quickly learned the culture created by athletics. If people identified as gay or lesbian, they typically weren’t open about it for fear of being ostracized, Windover says.

“It becomes a theory that anyone who identifies as a lesbian is attracted to every female that walks the Earth,” Windover says.

Athletics operated as its own entity and adopted an intolerant culture of its own, Windover says. The university’s soccer program functioned under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that essentially dictated no lesbians allowed, which clashed with the university’s formal non-discrimination policy in the student-athlete handbook. When the team traveled to away games, for example, lesbians were not allowed to share the same hotel room as straight players.

The suppressing culture prevented Windover from being herself. During undergrad, Windover partied, dated guys and did everything she could to blend with what she perceived to be a predominantly heterosexist environment governed by an unwritten dogma that people couldn’t be gay or lesbian. Her “socially acceptable” camouflage ostensibly worked for those around her.

The only person she couldn’t deceive by her ruse was herself. She felt uncomfortable hiding in the closet and grew weary of continually putting on a façade. It wasn’t until after Windover graduated and enrolled at Kent State for graduate school that she finally decided she was tired of pretending.

“The coming out process is faced with so many roadblocks as a whole, so you won’t want the roadblock to be the one thing you love. And that’s your sport.” —Rebecca Windover

Windover, now 24, came out publicly Oct. 12, 2013 and hasn’t looked back since. It was her time, and Kent State was the perfect place to do it.

“I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was in a community that was accepting and inclusive,” Windover says. “You can’t go into a department without seeing a safe zone sticker, and so that just meant that I felt included. I knew I wasn’t going to be judged or discriminated going in.”

Windover was coming from a small, private, liberal university with a student population of about 2,300 to a large, public, progressive university comprised of more than 20,000 students. When Windover discovered Kent State organizations like PRIDE! and Black United Students, she realized the influence students have on campus and wanted to make a difference by coming out.

Windover’s parents, John and Lori, met her disclosure with open arms despite her fear of their initial reaction.

“If I knew the way my parents would respond, I would have came out a long time ago,” Windover says. “It took [my friends] a while to develop an understanding. And I did lose some friends, but for the most part, I gained so many more, and when I came out [publicly], I had so many people reach out to me.”

She found GO! Athletes, a national group of LGBTQ student-athletes online.

“A lot of us in the group were closeted at the time, and there were a lot of people who were out, too,” Windover says. “Seeing that we’re literally hundreds of us who shared a similar story, but some of us found more support than others.”

One such athlete who received much support when she came out was junior Kent State softball player Janel Hayes, who has had a much different experience in intercollegiate athletics.

Exemplar of acceptance

Hayes, who has identified as a lesbian since her senior year of high school, has been met with nothing but positive support from those around her.

When she began college hunting near the end of high school, she gauged prospective universities’ overall acceptance level of LGBTQ athletes and found Kent State would soon become home for her—a place that would allow her to be herself.

“The girls on the team were really accepting,” Hayes says. “Everyone on the team was really cool with it.”

When Hayes made her college visit to Kent State, the diversity of the student body along with the tolerance the softball coaching staff and players demonstrated toward LGBTQ athletes became major selling points that made Hayes’ decision a little easier.

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Courtesy of KSU Athletic Department | Softball player Janel Hayes came to Kent State because of the university’s acceptance of LGBTQ students.

Hayes chose to come to Kent State four years ago when she learned that the team was accepting of players who identified as LGBTQ during her campus visit back in high school. Photo courtesy of KSU Athletic Department.

Some of Hayes’ teammates, who were new to having LGBTQ teammates, were hesitant at first. But through team-bonding experiences and various locker room shenanigans, they have become close and a long way from where they were before coming to Kent State.

“The coming out process is faced with so many roadblocks as a whole, so you don’t want the roadblock to be the one thing you love the most,” Windover says. “And that’s your sport. I applaud the softball team and the softball coaches and their staff, and especially the teammates on welcoming this athlete. Her sexual orientation doesn’t dictate whether she’s a great athlete or not. We are our best selves when when all of our one self is allowed to show up.”

Hayes has never experienced locker room issues—something that all too often becomes part of the territory of coming out as an athlete. Hayes’ experience in Kent State athletics might be proof that the 113-year-old school is progressing into an era in which teams with LGBTQ student-athletes are becoming the norm.

“When student-athletes that are looking to go to college that happen to be gay or lesbian see that a college is putting themselves out there to let them know, it’s also more comforting for them, too,” Hayes says.

Even though Kent State has made great strides in the ways of diversity and equality for LGBTQ student-athletes, times are still tough.

You can play

Although athletics across the country is still not perfect, it has vastly improved.

Kent State recently underscored this growing acceptance when the athletic department launched its “You Can Play” video.

Campus Pride’s 2012 LGBTQ National College Athlete Report revealed some glaring statistics. Out of the 394 individuals who identified as LGBTQ, one in four LGBTQ student-athletes said they were pressured to stay silent about their sexual identity among teammates, and 21 percent said they were the targets of discrimination in the form of derogatory remarks via email, Facebook, social media and other electronic means, which is almost double that of the athletes’ heterosexual counterparts.

Windover can attest to some of these statistics. After earning her master’s degree in higher education administration, Windover did extensive research on LGBTQ student-athletes, finding student-athletes everywhere struggle with their sexual orientation and are often the targets of discrimination and harassment.

In her research for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, Windover describes how homophobia has taken over collegiate athletics, writing that athletes often remain closeted for fear of being outed, and athletics is home to many negative recruiting processes.

Windover says the unwritten rule of “no lesbians allowed” at Alfred was not just a university-specific policy, but a nation-wide policy among many intercollegiate athletic programs, including the Penn State women’s basketball program, which was cited in the 2009 documentary “Training Rules.”

The award-winning film chronicles former head coach Rene Portland’s policy of discrimination of her players based on their sexual orientation over a 27-year period.

“There’s still an environment within athletics, there’s a fear of being outed,” PRIDE! President Brandon Stephens says. “If an LGBTQ athlete stands up and speaks out against the athletic department in terms of the environment for LGBTQ athletes, it can get troublesome, and it could potentially be the end of an athletic career.”

With identifying as LGBTQ comes the threat of scholarships and financial aid that most athletes refuse to jeopardize. While Windover didn’t have to worry because she was on an academic scholarship, many Division I athletes who rely on athletic scholarships fear coaches will cut them and, in turn, expunge their scholarship if they identify.

“A coach needs to be willing to learn about sexual orientations and how they affect the team.” —Rebecca Windover

“An athlete being outted or outing themselves can be kind of scary, especially when the environment is still so tumultuous,” Stephens says. “It’s very difficult to bring yourself as an institution out of that environment because it involved a lot of change. In order to enact real, worthwhile change, a lot of those things have to be done, and those things take time.”

In order to mend the disconnect between LGBTQ athletes and university athletics, Windover has called for discussion panels, coach screenings and safe-space training.

“A coach needs to be willing to learn about sexual orientations and how they affect the team,” she says.

There might be coaches who don’t know how to deal with and handle situations that arise concerning LGBTQ athletes, which is why education is vital to the shifting paradigm.

A few years ago, Windover says, one Kent State coach (who will remain anonymous) felt he lost LGBTQ recruits because, when potential students made their campus visits and met with the team, the team deterred them.

Stephens believes the university should adopt a zero-tolerance policy, which relates to the athletic department’s handling of the Sam Wheeler incident in which the former Kent State wrestler was suspended indefinitely from the team for anti-gay tweets aimed at NFL player Michael Sam.

Photo submitted by Brandon Stephens. | Brandon Stephens, president of Pride! Kent, says while KSU athletics is taking baby steps, it’s on the way to becoming a warm, welcoming environment.

The athletic department took swift and strict action against Wheeler’s misconduct, but negative feelings stemmed from all sides in regard to the manner in which the athletic department handled the situation.

Many felt the university only suspended Wheeler because of a donor who called and complained about the incident was involved, Stephens says. Individuals within the community and PRIDE! felt the university and the athletic department acted independently without consulting LGBTQ students.

“We extended an olive branch to athletics in order to have a conversation, and we were met with slammed doors every direction we turned,” Stephens says.

The “You Can Play Project” is a national project dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation, and works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete.

The effort to create a “You Can Play” video for Kent State had been present for years, but the abstract concept lacked concrete direction and initial impetus to get the project going. That is, until Windover stepped up and got the ball rolling.

By collaborating with key Kent State public figures to see the initiative through, Windover put the plan in motion. The video would also not have been possible without an ally who’s been a long-time advocate of promoting diversity and fostering a safe supporting community for LGBTQ students: President Beverly Warren.

“Being able to have an institutional president say that this is what I believe, this is what I support and this is what this institution is all about was huge,” Windover says.

Warren’s powerful message encouraging students “to be their most authentic selves” precedes the video.

“It is a university that accepts you for who you are and pushes you to become more than you’ve ever imagined you could be,” Warren says in the video. “Our students know that no matter your background, your culture or your sexual orientation, you belong here.”

The video follows students from a wide array of sports addressing prospective Kent student-athletes, affirming them that their sexual orientation doesn’t affect whether they can play. It ends with a poignant message from Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen, whose words push the video’s point home.

“As Golden Flashes, we strive to be accessible, safe-space allies for LGBTQ students,” Nielsen says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or what sport you belong to here at Kent State. If you can play, you can play.”

The “You Can Play” initiative is historically prolific because it didn’t exist until Windover began pressing for one to be made in 2014.

“My desire is that we continue to be an inclusive community, so the ‘You Can Play’ video opportunity just really is one more example of many of the things that we’re doing to make sure that everyone feels welcomed and valued here,” Warren says.

Nielsen declined to comment on this story, but LGBTQ Student Center Director Ken Ditlevson has big plans to work with the athletic department in the near future. He says “You Can Play” is one step in a multi-phase strategic plan to make Kent State Athletics an accepting, more diverse entity.

Taking the initiative

Ditlevson, who has been at Kent State for less than a year, found a connection in athletics in Angie Hull, director for student-athlete Academic Services, who created the name for the “Flashes of PRIDE!” poster campaign.

“Talking about it in an open forum where people can ask questions in a safe environment is really important,” -Ken Ditlevson

The poster, created by the Kent State Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and displayed on walls all around campus, features allies to the LGBTQ community, as well as members of the LGBTQ community whose sexual orientations range from gay and lesbian to pansexual and everything in between. Students can use the poster information to network with allies if they ever need help.

Hull also helped Ditlevson form the LGBTQ Student Center Staff/Faculty Advisory Council (LSAC), which is a body of representatives across the university that guides the LGBTQ Student Center and serve as a networking reference for underrepresented students on campus.

Ditlevson wanted to equip Kent State students, faculty and staff with the tools to create safe spaces and welcoming environments for LGBTQ students and help them network with allies. Participants will have the opportunity to learn about the LGBTQ community and interact with students who identify as LGBTQ.

Ditlevson wants to contact the athletic department to schedule safe space training sessions for the teams, as the only session so far was geared toward faculty and staff. The Kent State softball, football and basketball coaches approached Ditlevson after the training and requested team training for their respective teams, showing him that the training session was met with positive feedback.

“The coaches and head administrators were really on board and very interested, asked some amazingly engaged questions, and they actually requested that we do student team trainings as follow-up, which we’re working on finishing,” Ditlevson says.

Holding open forums and even conferring policy changes are also avenues Ditlevson would like to explore, as the athletic department’s inclusion policy consists of just one sentence on page 56 of the Kent State Student-athlete Handbook. Updating and improving language and eliminating ambiguous language in the policy is just another step in the process.

“Talking about it in an open forum where people can ask questions in a safe environment is really important,” Ditlevson says. “The more inclusive policy statements we have, the more backing we have when there are issues, we can refer back to that. Thankfully we have a strong, overarching discrimination policy for Kent, but [it’s better] when you drill even down further at a department level.”

Changing policies and eventually a culture starts with baby steps like the Safe-Space Ally Training sessions, and Ditlevson hopes the “You Can Play” and Safe-Space Ally program will be the first steps toward overarching, campus-wide change.

Changing culture

The “You Can Play” video is just one small step in an elaborate, extensive plan to change not only a historically toxic environment in athletics but also the overall culture at Kent State.

“We’re really doing all athletes a disservice by not providing a warm and welcoming environment,” Stephens says. “Kent State Athletics is definitely hinting at change that is coming, and they’re taking baby steps right now, which I think is very important.”

Athletics partnering with the LGBTQ Student Center to do a progressive video is just another example of how far Kent State has come in terms of promoting diversity, Warren says.

“What I’m encouraging is more cross-division collaboration around subjects and topics and attitudes that are important as we move forward as a university, so keeping the dialogue open [is key],” Warren says. “We could be an exemplar of really providing great education and awareness.”

Photo submitted by Rebecca Windover. | Windover (left) and her fiance look forward to their marriage, which was not legal in the U.S. until June 26, 2015.

The video intends for Warren’s message to spread throughout athletics and reach all other facets of Kent State.

“The theme of it should be your sexual orientation doesn’t matter—no matter who you are, you belong here,” Windover says.

Universal change

When Windover came out, she felt a sense of satisfying relief. But like many life-altering decisions, coming out was bittersweet because along with the relief came a hint of disappointment.

Windover is still waiting for the day when LGBTQ student-athletes don’t need to “come out,” much like the way straight people don’t need to. The LGBTQ community also wants to see sweeping change across the country.

Windover is an example of that widespread change, as she is currently engaged to be married—something she legally wouldn’t have been able to do five years ago.

“Look at how much has changed in two years for the LGBTQ community,” Windover says. “You can get married in any state that you want, and that is huge. It’s life after sport. You want these student-athletes to be able to get into the workforce and be accepting of one another.”